Gangsters have captured audience’s imagination since the 1930s Hollywood films. They have terrified viewers with their criminal nature and violent tendencies, while fascinating them with their complicated personas. As a result they have not only became the emblem of an entire genre but have also turned into an extremely popular figure in mass culture.
So, here is a list of five screen gangsters you have definitely heard of at some point in your lifetime.
Michael Corleone (Al Pacino, The Godfather trilogy)
Based on Mario Puzo’s novel about the dealings of the Corleone family, Michael (Al Pacino) inherits the power and the title of Godfather from his father Vito (Marlon Brando). The trilogy has not only been acknowledged on numerous occasions as one of the highlights of Coppola’s career, but has also created the prevalent idea of the stylish and cold gangster in contemporary cinema. Michael Corleone is not the impulsive criminal like previous gangster characters or like his own brother Sonny (James Caan). Instead, he sees everything he needs to do to succeed and protect his family as business, even cold-blooded murder.
Tom Powers (Jimmy Cagney, The Public Enemy)
As one of the first screen gangsters ever Jimmy Cagney started what became a tradition in cinema, inspiring artists like Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and many others. He was among the first actors to portray the inner struggles of the gangster hero, adapting it to the moral code and censorship of the early Hollywood system. For those who are not really aware what all of these mean, however, he delivers one of the most memorable performances in gangster film history down to the little dance he does in the street.
David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson (Robert De Niro, Once Upon a Time in America)
After 30 years away Noodles goes back to Brooklyn to confront the faces of his past. As Noodles De Niro delivers an unmatched performance portraying the physical and emotional changes the character goes through. In one of the last films Sergio Leone directed he tells the story of a group of Jewish gangsters, who slowly make their way up to the criminal world of New York City. The flashback narration and the film’s length (original cut of 269 minutes cut down to 229 minutes and later to 139 minutes) make it one of the greatest Italian epic crime films full of fascinating characters.
Henry Hill (Ray Liotta, Goodfellas)
Unlike Coppola and his slightly idealised view of the gangster figure, Martin Scorsese turned to the gangsters of the streets, the men who made it all happen for the bosses at the top – the wiseguys. The innovative and distinctive style of the film, combined with Hill’s voiceover, allows for a detailed insight into the criminal’s mind. Liotta’s character also complies to one of the traditions of the old-school gangster films – he is based on a real person. Just like initial gangster films incorporated the features of real criminals in their plots, Liotta’s character and his experiences are a screen portrayal of the life of Henry Hill as described in Nicholas Pileggi’s book ‘Wiseguy’.
Tom DeVitto (Joe Pesci, Goodfellas)
Another character in Scorsese’s critically acclaimed film; Joe Pesci portrays a gangster of the type of the old-school violent criminals. He is violent, impulsive and an embodiment of the destructive force of the gangster. While Henry Hill stops to consider factors like his family or the regulations of the criminal hierarchy before acting, Tom is the muscle of that hierarchy. Joe Pesci was not only awarded an Academy Award for his performance but this also turned into a type of character he became associated with and continued to play in Scorsese’s Casino in 1995.
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